Alhambra woodwork. Manu Barba Architecture and Travel ©Cristina Espinosa
West ceiling of the Two Sisters room ©Cristina Espinosa


Sometimes in my routes I try to mention which is the most significant feature of the Alhambra. What is it that thing that makes the Nasrid monument one of the wonders of architecture. And I never come to an only idea. Some will argue that light, and those would be right. Some might say water, also a pretty solid argument. And we could also mention the atmosphere, the climate, the Alhambra woodwork, the fluidity of the space and a very long etcetera. All the properties of the Alhambra would have no place in an article, almost not even an encyclopedia article. And some way all the properties of architecture take special relevance within the walls of the Andalusian monument.

However, just as we can say that without water or light this city does not exist, we can say that without the Alhambra woodwork it could not exist either.
Although if you take a look at the great books on the monument, (which are many and of very good quality), this material is rarely mentioned beyond a decorative system, or a roof or a canvas for expression. But this monument is an icon of carpentry and even of the expression of the language of nature in architecture.

And it is at this moment where we could walk through the Granada jewel, but analysing it from the point of view of the material. And the fact is that the Alhambra woodwork could be grouped into three main typologies: “absent” woodwork, “present” woodwork and “symbolic” woodwork

Let’s start with the “absent” woodwork

This is the one who, although not present, has participated in the construction process of the different palatine spaces and other structures. It can be affirmed that practically all the structures and decorative arts of the Alhambra use wood to be done. And beware, this does not imply that they are expressly made in this material.

It can be seen in the rammed earth walls where sometimes the outside lime leave the holes of the pre-existing scaffolding shown. Or also the plasterwork, because to make the great canvases that cover the walls, the molds were carved. That is why we have a repetitive pattern and, by the way, pre-made. But when it is not a mold, it is a support, through the formwork necesary for making the arches and many of the vaults that we can see today. So without the Alhambra woodwork even it just part of the process there is no construction at all.

The “present” woodwork, as its own name indicates, is the one that is there, that can be seen (but not touched, because it is prohibited)

I mean the one that appears in a space through a piece of furniture for example. This wood in the Alhambra is manifested mainly through ceilings that represent a new start in architecture. It is in this Nasrid monument where great experts such as Enrique Nuere affirm that the geometric rules of spanish carpentry and latticework originate.

And possibly this technique begins to be tested on furniture pieces from the smallest to the largest ones. First on chests or drawers or cupboards, and if it can be done in a closet it can be done covering a door. And well if it can be done in a door, then it can be done in a roof or an eave. This produces a leap from furniture to architecture. Although this is explained by Albanécar much better on his white carpentry articles.

But these Alhambra woodwork examples are not only carved objects with more or less aesthetic motifs. On these is where wood through its nature finds a connection with symbolism, with the abstraction. This is where we can a make a connection with the last great group. Because the wood in the Alhambra is also “symbolic”. So wood becomes the transmission medium, giving space to epigraphies, normally poems of great length or suras and rarely for repetitive motifs, exactly the opposite to what normally happens in plasterworks. Even in the Christian palatine spaces of the 16th century, wood is the support for these prayers.

The “symbolic” Alhambra woodwork

It goes from the explicit to the abstract in some of the spaces, such as the Comares roof. This is one of the largest and most complex carpentry ceiling of the Islamic art and drinks from the Sufi presence that Granada had. The ceiling is done through the esoteric and the mystical rules representing through the latticeworks the seven heavens of Islam with a paradise of muqarns. Woodwork here is no longer a canvas of text. It becomes the canvas of ideas. In this same roof the vegetation is one of the symbols, because in the corners we have the tree of life.

The three Alhambra woodworks. Manu Barba. ©José Luis Filpo Cabana
Comares ceiling ©José Luis Filpo Cabana

The Islamic culture considers vegetation a symbol of life. Therefore, wood is not the only material with which this symbol is represented. The plaster or the marble pay homage to the vegetation and the wood as a symbol in the Courtyard of the Lions. Here the wood in the Alhambra is absent. The one hundred and twenty four columns are no longer marble, because they are located like the trees of a paradisiacal oasis representing the wonderful randomness of nature. Different groupings, different intercolumns, different ways of solving the gap, all to convert the stony space through wood into an interpretation of paradise, changing the way of living a space.

And this shows us that this material according to its position, its use or its symbolism can transcend verbs doing much more than being, or appearing. The Alhambra woodwork can build, in all the breadth of the word, from interpretation or action to the reaction of the visitor who looks with the eyes of curiosity.

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